Perfidia – Initial thoughts (part 1)

With the release of James Ellroy’s Perfidia yesterday, I had the kind of giddy release/launch day excitement for something that I haven’t felt for a while – something that is only heightened by Ellroy’s ambitions for this new series of novels. Perfidia is a prequel to the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), and there’s the thrill of him returning to mid-century Los Angeles after he’d given every indication his horizons had broadened beyond it, as well as the prequel’s particular pleasure – returning to characters we’ve left behind, or see die, and fleshing out their history. But more than that, it’s clear from the opening chapters that in this new sequence that Ellroy is consciously attempting to tie together the LA Quartet and the Underworld USA trilogy (American TabloidThe Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover) into one epic sequence.

This doesn’t just mean cameos from Underworld USA characters (of which there has been at least one already, 60 pages in). It means bringing out significant thematic elements from Underworld USA that were much less dominant in the Quartet. So far, we’ve been told twice that the central LAPD offices at City Hall are riddled with bugs and listening posts, as various factions within the corrupt (pre-Parker) force vie for influence – foreshadowing the obsessive spying of J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes (and indeed nearly everyone else) in Underworld USA. And there are clear indications that we’re going to see the infiltration of various political groups, layers of counter-intelligence operations, and unpleasantly compromised alliances that structure Underworld USA – but transposed onto the climate of the early 40s. If this attempt to integrate the three sequences together works – and it’s a pretty bold undertaking, trying to make these prequels both stand on their own merits, and unite the later novels, without inconsistency or too much contrivance – it’s going to be a stunning piece of work.

There’s much more to say, but for now, the thing that struck me most as I read the first five or six chapters, is the way the initial excitement (of something new from Ellroy, of the return to LA and the near-constant parade of familiar faces) coalesced into something appropriately familiar. It began to feel like the exhilaration and anticipation of the investigator finally in possession of the missing files that are about to blow the case wide open – Doc Lesnick’s psychiatric records in The Big Nowhere, to take one example. That sounds somewhat trite, but it feels visceral. And there’s never a better word than visceral to describe the best of Ellroy’s writing.

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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